Sunday, July 31, 2011

Celebration of Nature

I've noticed that, at least in my time and place, people tend to pick up the philosophical principles according to which they run their lives as pre-fabs, without much thought. Maybe this has been true for most people most of the time from when humans were first able to think about running their lives according to anything other than instinct.

Since I dislike inelegant sledge-hammer types of technology, people often mistakenly assume that I am against all forms of advanced technology. They also mistakenly assume that I am a vegetarian and a supporter of liberal politicians (liberal as in the modern USian usage of the term). If I tell them I do not give blanket support to the Democratic Party, they assume I like Republicans. And so forth.

One of the things people tend to assume about me, since I enjoy spending time away from the city and since I like to try to work with nature rather than against it, is that I am a tree-hugging nature-lover. I don't so much love nature as appreciate its amazing complexity. I work with it rather than against it out of laziness and the desire for efficiency. One thing I know about the way nature works: every contestant in the game of life is fighting a dangerous, constant battle. Rich city people can thank advanced technology for their ability to forget about the fight for days, weeks, even lifetimes. By rich, I mean anyone who can afford a constant source of electricity, clean water, temperature control, food, and medical technology. Rich people can pay someone else to fight the battle for them.

I am a rich person, by the above definition. There have been periods in my life when I was not rich, when I was not completely sure I'd have enough food, when I could not afford to pay for medical help, when I did not have an entirely secure shelter from the rain. The periods when I was not rich were real eye-openers with respect to nature.

The grasshoppers that have devastated my country garden are a reminder, and I've just had a particularly gruesome reminder due to misplaced trust in a building contractor.

This man, who came highly recommended and whom I trusted, recently built two chicken pens for me. After the first one was built, I noticed there was a gap at the top of the pen. The contractor used a method similar to the one I used at Altamira when I built pens and pole barns, except that I attached the wire to a wood frame on the outside of the poles, so there was no gap between the wire and the roof of the pen. The contractor had his men attach the wire directly to the poles and cross pieces. This leaves a gap at the top of the wire, large enough for my cat to crawl through.

I pointed out the gap to the contractor, and asked him to be sure and not leave a gap on the second pen, and to fix the gap on the first one. He told me he would. This is where I made my big mistake: I trusted the contractor when he said the work was done and did not climb up to inspect the tops of the pens with my own eyes.

Relying on the contractor's word that the pens had been properly constructed, I put 4 mature hens, 10 pullets, two roosters, and 17 half-grown guineas into the pens. When I arrived at Tilmon last night, I caught a possum and a raccoon enjoying chicken dinners, inside the second pen. These two, plus probably all the other small predators in the neighborhood, killed all 4 mature hens, 8 of the pullets, both roosters, and all the guineas.

I've buried the bodies to get rid of the death-smell, and sent an email to the contractor with photos, to give him a graphic demonstration of why I asked him not to leave gaps at the tops of the pens.

The scene last night, viewed by by flashlight, was worthy of a horror movie. Here are a few photos of Nature in Action. Imagine seeing this in brief, disjointed glimpses in the beam of a flashlight while breathing the odor of decaying flesh. Dark cavities with ragged edges, wet with blood serum. Maggots like glistening, squirming grains of rice. I wanted very much to run away and never come back. But I stayed to clean up the mess. It was still horrible in the morning, but not nearly as bad as it was at night.

It occurs to me that what a good horror movie does is make the viewer see what it would be like if one were dropped into the jaws of Nature, without the protection of human technology. Of course, the slaughter of my birds was not really completely natural, since if they had not been penned, they would have been roosting high in trees instead of on roosts that possums and raccoons can reach with ease (in the trees, owls could have been added to the list of potential predators), and absent their association with humans, the birds would probably have had sharper instincts. But still ...

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The San Antonio Garden

I've put my country garden on hold until I can figure out how to work around the grasshoppers. I've thought of a couple of new things to try. One is an automatic watering system. The soil at Tilmon is sandy, so even after a deep watering, the upper layers of soil dry out quickly. Until plants get their roots down deep, they suffer from lack of water when I'm not there during the hot part of the summer to water them every 2 or 3 days. The plants that were kept in containers through the summer last year survived with only minor grasshopper damage. This year, when they were planted in the ground, they didn't survive. I dug them up, planted them in containers, and brought them to San Antonio. Three have died -- a Fuji apple, a peach (lost the tag and don't remember what variety of peach), and a catalpa. The rest seem to be thriving. I've already planted two peach trees. two mulberries, a fig, and a pineapple guava in the garden here in San Antonio. Looking good in containers are an Anna apple, a Le Conte pear, and an Ein Shemer apple. Thes Israeli apple trees (Anna and Ein Shemer) can take the south Texas heat and need very few chilling hours. The grasshoppers have killed 4 peach trees, 3 pears, an apple, and a fig. (I'm making myself feel bad taking inventory in this way; I need to focus on the future instead)

Asking why the trees survived in containers but not in the ground, I came up with the following answers:

1. soil
2. location
3. frequency of watering

I've tried enriching the soil. This actually seemed to increase the grasshopper damage. I guess they were getting more nutrients from the plants grown in healthy soil. I tried planting in the ground where the containers had been. The grasshoppers still defoliated the trees.

The one variable left, unless I've overlooked something, is water. I had an automatic watring system set up to water the containers.

So this is the next thing I'll try in my attempts to make the land at Tilmon into an edible garden.

Meanwhile, the garden in San Antonio is taking shape. We have a small 1-story house (2200 sq ft) on half an acre, so there's a lot of garden space. The existing shrubs and small trees include anaqua, sophora (aka Texas mountain laurel), nandina, pomegranite, and loquat. There are three oak trees, which I have not precisely identified (this is a whole different biosphere from Altamira and Tilmon, and many of the trees are different), an elm (I think), a palm which I think is a Windmill Palm, but I'm not 100% sure, some china berries, and some trees I've never seen before that have very brittle branches. One recently fell across a part of the garden I'd been in only a couple of minutes earlier. It was a large tree, about 40 feet tall. There's another growing next to where it was and seedlings coming up all around. I think I'll keep the one that's still there as a nurse tree while the young fruit trees are getting started, then have it removed. The wood is so brittle, I think it's probably dangerous.

There were no shrubs defining the perimeters of any of the garden spaces. The place was mostly a jumble of weeds. I've let many of them grow back, just to hold down the soil and give the birds and lizards food and refuge. There are many sunflowers, which attract dozens of cardinals and doves. The hedges I've planted are growing so you can sort of see the outlines of the hedges; there are always dozens of tomatoes and peppers to eat and give away and many flowers blooming. I was pretty sad for a while, because of the grasshopper devastation in Timon. I felt like a failure as a gardener. But I'm beginning to feel better now, as the SA garden takes shape.

Here are some photos. Next year at this time, I'll look at these and say, "It looked so bare!" But it's a beginning. I've included a very quick and very rough sketch of the part of the garden directly behind the house. The yellow highlighted areas are raised beds. The Hever Castle Buddleia is planted along the drive way. There are cannas planted in front of the ugly wooden fence. they should grow tall enough to almost complete hide it. In front of the buddleia (looking from the direction of the house) are shrub roses. In front of the rose bushes are various perennial flowers including salvias and day lilies. The Pride of Barbados (what San Antonio garden would be complete without this flamboyant shrub?) is against the stucco wall of the back underpinning. The house is built on a slope. The floor is at ground level on the north side and high up off the gound on the south side. The south side was the front yard when the house was built. Later, the lot to the south was subdivided and sold, and another house was built on it. So the back of our house now faces the street. This all sounds very confusing as I read it. I apologize for that, but I don't have time to go back and make it clearer now, as the outdoor temperature is getting bearable. Time to go outside and play in the garden. It gets too hot here for gardening to be enjoyable except in the mornings and evenings. At those times of the day, it's rather pleasant.

Knapped Flint

While I was sitting in the garden day before yesterday digging a hole for a Fanick's phlox, I found a piece of flint. This is unusal, as flint does not seem to occur naturally in my yard.

It looks like a spear head someone threw away when it was only partly done, probably because it split in such a way that the finished head could not be shaped correctly. I wondered if I was just imaging this scenario. Was this a partially finished, or just a piece of flint?

Below I've pasted in part of an article from This is about knapped flint from the eastern hemispere, but I would think it should also apply to flints worked in Texas. My spear head (if that's what is was going to be) has ripples, bulbs of precussion, secondary working (see right edge of upper photo), fissures. Hard to see how it could be anything other than knapped flint.

I've been told that there was once a spring in our back yard. This is not difficult to believe. San Pedro Springs park with its spring-fed swimming pool is less than half a mile from here. It's easy to imagine a group of people spending time here, toward the top of the hill overlooking the San Antonio River bottom. To imagine that someone sat in the same place as I was sitting when I planted the phlox, making spear heads, talking. I wonder if he cursed when the flint cracked and ruined his spear head. Of if he just shrugged, "Meh," tossed it away and pulled another piece of flint from his bag. I say "he" and "his" because I'm pretty sure men made the spear and (later) arrow heads and did the hunting and fighting.

How to Identify Knapped Flint Tools.

Markings on knapped flints
Whilst the use of some flint tools is obvious from their shape and size, many are not, and it requires an expert to ascertain their exact use and age. But perhaps more importantly, how do you tell if a piece of flint is a tool, or just a piece of flint?
Knapped flint has several characteristics, and while none are fully diagnostic of a knapped flint, virtually all knapped flints will display one or more of the following, as displayed in the picture.
  • Ripples (ripple marks on the flat surfaces radiating away from th point of percussion)
  • Bulb of Percussion (a small lump left in the flint immediately below the point it was struck)
  • Secondary working or 'nibbling' (fine working on the edge of a tool to sharpen or resharpen it)
  • Point of Percussion (sometimes shows as a small area of damaged or crumbled flint where it was struck, above the bulb of percussion)
  • Percussion Platform (the flat 'edge' remaining where the flint was struck from the edge of a flat face of a core)
  • Fissures (fractures produced by the shock of the knapping)
  • Percussion Scar (a scar of less cleanly cleaved flint below the point of percussion)
  • Polishing (occasionally scrapers and similar tools will show signs of a high polish from much use, though the fully polished tools, ie. stone axes, sometimes seen in museums, are very rare finds, and would have had more to do with wealth and ceremony than 'working' tools)

Friday, July 1, 2011

Saving Green Lives

I have given up trying to grow fruit trees at Tilmon, or anything else other than mesquite, juniper, prickly ash, and bull nettles. The grasshoppers have beat me, at least for now.

I tried everything I could think of, short of toxins that would kill birds, amphibians, and mammals along with the hoppers: NoLo Bait  horticultural kaolin, low-dose Sevin bait (Eco-Bran), putting black plastic on the ground around the trees, putting screen cages around the trees, coating the leaves, branches and trunks with pepper spray. Nothing seemed even to put a dent in the number of grasshoppers knawing at my trees. I had one particularly healthy peach tree that survived last year's grasshopper defolitation. I even hoped it might be large enough and strong enough to survive this year and maybe produce fruit next summer. When I left one Sunday, it had a fine big canopy, higher than the top of my head. The following Friday when I returned, it had been completely defoliated and the branches eaten down to nubs.

The fuckers are even eating the needles off my 2-year-old pine trees. (please forgive my rude choice of words, but I can't think of anything more appropriate).

I couldn't bear to just let everything die. I started digging up the trees and shrubs and moving them to San Antonio. There was no point in trying to move the pines -- they crave acidic soil, and the soil and water in San Antonio are toward the alkaline end of the pH scale. So I left them. I also left two rose bushes that, for reasons I cannot yet grasp, the grasshoppers are not molesting, and one rose bush that is being eaten but is too large to comfortably move. If they completely defoliate it, I will cut it back and dig it up. The turk's caps seem to be holding their own, and one pear tree that's planted among some prickly ash trees. This is my most promising clue: the plants that have not been destroyed by the hoppers are the ones planted in close proxmity to prickly ash trees.  Two of the pines are next to prickly ash trees, and so far these pines are OK. I will certainly follow up on this clue, especially if the plants close to prickly ash trees continue to survive mostly intact.

I have brought to SA in containers fig, apple, pear, and peach trees, rose bushes, day lillies, cassava, blue berry. The blueberry is risky, since blueberries like acidic soil -- I'll add some sulfur to the container and hope for the best. This fall after the weather cools, I'll take the blueberry back to Tilmon and plant it next to a prickly ash tree.

Here's the way the trees looked after the'y been worked over by the hoppers. This is a Le Conte pear. the trunk and baby limbs are white from the kaolin coating I put on the to try to keep the hoppers from girdling them and killing them. That much, at least, did work.

Here's the way they look after being in their containers in San Antonio for a couple of weeks, with much TLC from me in the form of fish emulsion fertilizer and solutions of micronutrients:

There is one peach tree, the one that was especially beautiful and healthy just a month ago, that may not make it. It's a very sad sight, indeed. Yet I did notice a tiny green tip emerging a couple of days ago, and there are now two small leaves. It's too early to tell for sure, but I think it may survive. The rose bushes are leafing out as though to shout, "What doesn't kill us makes us stronger!"

My husband commented that he can now see why people resort to using strong poisons on insects. The problem is that the poisons are only short-term fixes. Better, in my opinion, and certainly more elegant, to figure out how to discourage the hoppers without wiping out a large % of the other animals in the region as well.

In addition to having an Idea (prickly ash as nurse trees), I am also raising some guinea keets.  Now that I've saved many of the trees and shrubs, I'm no longer as sad about the situation. I'm able to take an interest in it as an interesting experiment. I'm glad I wasn't depending on those fruit trees as a major source of food. I guess if I had been, there would have only one thing for it: I would have had to master the art of grasshopper cookery.